Project Canterbury

The Streets and Lanes of the City

By Mary Eleanor Benson

With a brief memoir by her father [E. W. Benson, Archbishop of Canterbury].

London: Privately printed, 1891.

Transcribed by S. R. Holman, Center for Poverty Studies, 2006

Chapter 14. Two Small Servants--A Success and a Failure

The utter diversity of the careers of girls who undergo the same training, and share much of the same influences, continues to amaze one, as much as the difficulty of prophesying as to the course such careers will take: Where character and purpose will stand firm, where outward pressure will act as stimulus, and where as weight; where personal affection will incite to action, and where only to emotion.

It may not, therefore, be uninteresting to give a sketch of the career of three girls all trained for service at the same excellent Training Home--in the present chapter of two, of whom, roughly speaking, one is a failure and the other a success.

Little Louey Carter was a funny, old-fashioned child of thirteen, very short, with as much character and wisdom in her little face as would serve many women twice her age. Her early life had been one of tribulation, with the sight both of sin and of distress before her. Her father had died when she was eight or nine, and left the family, consisting of his wife, a most good woman, an elder girl of twenty, very wild and ill-disposed; a second of sixteen, his special favourite, a winning-looking girl with a strange history; Louey herself, aged eight, to be described in the pages to come, and a little boy two years younger, a bright, intelligent child with a painful stammer.

They lived in a narrow flagged court, close to a public house, with the filthiest smells at one corner of it--a court of a rather low reputation, but also of low rents. They lived in one room, and the family was supported on the mother's earnings of 10s. a week, and the smaller earnings, perhaps 4s. to 5s., of the second girl.

The little Louey saw her mother daily more harassed and distressed. She saw her eldest sister quarrel with her fiercely, partly in consequence of the nagging of the well-intentioned, but rather tactless mother. Finally the girl flung off to go to laundry work at a great distance from home, and live as she liked. She went utterly to the bad; finally she married a drunken fellow who ill-treated her, and more than once Louey had woke up in the night to see her sister come in, bruised and blackened and crying, with her little starveling of a baby in her arms, to beg shelter for a night. In the morning, with the wonderful clinging affection of a woman, she went back to her tormentor.

The second girl seemed as if she would follow much the same course. She got among bad companions, and learned to drink. Then she repented and went away to service; but her temper overcame her one day; she swore roundly at her mistress and was dismissed--came home, took a place as scullery maid in a club kitchen, and went on badly. One night, coming home tipsy, she fell and hurt herself, and that accident proved her saving; for a kind aunt in the country took her to live with them; she is doing very well, and is entirely reformed. All through she was the sweetest-looking, gentlest-voiced girl ever seen, sensitive and alive to kindness and rebuke.

But such things left their mark on Louey's little mind. She and her little brother were brought up well; sent regularly to school and to church. She watched all with wise eyes, and she conceived an intense hatred to misconduct of all kinds and a passionate affection for her mother, whose comfort in life she was. It was an odd life for a child. The mother was gone by seven to her scrubbing in the workhouse infirmary, and Louey dressed herself and her brother, heard him his lessons, and got his breakfast and her own; took him to school, and joined him on the way back; and they had dinner alone, and went off to school again, coming back to find their mother at home. It was a hard training, they were often short of food; their mother was almost always sad.

When she was barely thirteen her mother sent her to a small place to mind the baby of a young couple of working people, both of whom went to work for the whole day.

So Louey spent her time from eight to eight absolutely alone in charge of this baby of six months. Morning and afternoon she dressed it carefully, and took it out for a short walk. When it was asleep she sat by it and learnt her texts for Sunday-school. She loved the baby, and always called it "My baby" with intense pride. She was as faithful, wise and trustworthy about it as any woman.

It seemed a pity that such a child should not have the chance of getting on, and it was arranged to send her to a Training Home that she might be able to go into good service. She was very little, not very strong, and needed care and good food.

Louey's remarks on the point deserve recording as she sat on a chair with her feet hardly touching the floor, her hands encased in her mother's cotton gloves some sizes too large, but her face was as wise and, alas! almost as sad, as a woman's:

"I want to go to service," she said, "that's what I want. I don't like to go to business, for just you look at them business girls how they behave and carry on. I've seen them down our court many times and I shouldn't like to behave like that. Look at the way they trim their hats and all, and they don't speak at all nice. I want to go to service, and I'd like very much to go to that Training Home, because I know they'd learn me a many things that I don't know; and then I should get into a good place and be able to help mother more. I shall be very sorry to leave my baby besides mother, but mother'd like me to go and I should like to go myself. Girls in service can be so nice and neat, and nice in themselves too; and perhaps if I stayed and went into business I might get like the other girls down our court and learn their ways, and I shouldn't like that."

And when a word was spoken about her mother's hard-working and trying life, the hope that Louey would grow up to be more and more a comfort to her, the poor little child broke down altogether, and she went away wiping her eyes with a clean pocket handkerchief out of her tidy little pocket.

Her first letter from the Home was in the same wise strain: "I am not quite used to it yet, but the other trainer told me that she felt the same when she first came. I am sorry she is going away, she has been such a help to me. I will try my very best to get on and to learn. I do miss mother so much but hope to see her soon."

During her six months there was never a single complaint of her. She had good words from her superiors and companions alike--good, faithful, affectionate little soul as she was--and she was very happy indeed.

Then came the great plunge into life. She got a place as maid in a small house in the London suburbs. Her first letter was very satisfactory:

"My mother came up to see my mistress a week or two ago and my mistress told her I was very satisfactory I am going to try my very best to stay here as long as I possibly can, for the sake of my Dear Mother and you who so kindly sent me to the Lodge. I should not have been here if it had not been for going to the Lodge to be carefully trained. I have learnt a lot by going there. The only thing I rather dislike is being so short to wait table. My mistress is very kind to me."

But difficulties were to come. The mistress did not get the other servant who was wanted in the house, and poor little Louey wrote: "I have found out that the more you do the more you may. But I shall do my best to stay as long as I possibly can."

She was not suffering in health, and it seemed best she should stay. But the letters grew rather sadder:

"I do not think Mrs. Binney [the matron at the Home] likes me being here if I can find a better place. I do not want to go where I shall have to do with Children for I feel tired of them."

It was difficult to do anything at the time. All seemed to combine to try her; her mistress was ill and away; the house was being altered. And certainly the child kept well in health, and the work though too incessant was not heavy.

Then came a very sarcastic letter at last from poor little Louey--the one quoted more at length in the chapter on Social Gifts. On the receipt of it her mother went up to have a long talk to Louey's mistress. And happily matters were put straight. The mistress said that she was really attached to Louey, and wished to do her best by her, and was afraid she had been a little inconsiderate of her, but much hoped she would not go.

So Louey chose to stay. She was a sensible little woman; and on thinking it over she told her mother she thought it would be better not to leave.

So a week's holiday put all straight. She went back contentedly. And there she still stays--and will stay, it is hoped, for a long time.

So at present runs her small career. They are little beginnings; but so far full of promise and assurance for the future. And the character that has been founded in unselfishness and perseverance will, one trusts, develop finely under happier circumstances.

Molly O'Brien was an Irish girl, warm-hearted, affectionate and wilful. Her family ought to have been rather high up in a worldly way. Her father was an artisan getting £3 or £4 weekly; but he drank. It was a large and handsome family. Her mother was an odd woman, almost cracked, one thought, at times; rather fashionably dressed when she was out, but apparently an affectionate mother, though she maintained no kind of discipline at home; and Molly was fond of her. Molly never got on with her father. She ought by rights to have left home long before she actually did, for the over-crowding was dreadful. She was the only grown-up girl.

She had a strange religious phase when she was about twelve. She would lie on her bed for hours together singing hymns. She was always a very merry girl, and a popular one--extremely ready both for tears and for giggles.

Molly when she was crying was an overwhelming sight and sound. Her sobs might be heard half a mile off.

When she was fifteen she went to service at a butcher's in a street where a daily and weekly market was held. Now the fruits of her early training or want of it became evident. She was fond of admiration and she took to chattering to the men in the shop, and her mistress, a gay young woman, came down upon her sharply now and then, but never ruled her properly.

One night Molly arranged with one of the men to go out for a walk late in the evening. They were not back till after eleven, and she avoided her mistress and crept up stairs to bed.

But next day her conscience began to prick her; she felt she ought to tell her mistress. She was one of the candid girls to whom even an innocent secret is rather a burden, and this guilty secret weighed on her very heavily. About bedtime it became intolerable and she told her.

Her mistress, who was perhaps not quite sober, was furious. She abused the girl, and Molly, always pert and rude, answered her back. The result was that she turned her promptly out of doors into the street with her possessions.

Molly's first thought was to go to a cousin, a girl who had lately gone wrong, and had asked Molly to live with her. She dared not go home. She knew her father was in a drinking bout; and at such times he was specially turned against her. She then thought of going to another friend. But at this moment a neighbour, a kind, good woman, passing by saw her, questioned her, and took her in for the night.

Next morning Molly went straight to the friend, her teacher on Sunday afternoons, and told her all with absolute frankness.

On being brought to a sense of her sins she was very, very penitent; and after a while it was arranged that she should go to the Training Home as a probation; her mother paying half the cost. She said she did not believe Molly would every do well in the small places, but she was a handy girl, and would reward teaching.

So she went. Her first letters were most satisfactory.

"I hardly know how to be grateful enough for all that has been done for me. The only way is to be a good and gentle girl and I will try only there are times when I think I could be rude to anyone that speaks sharp to me, and often when I think of the time when you stood at the top of those steps asking me to be a good girl it makes me forget the sharp answers I would say then, I cannot help crying. I am sure I shall never forget it."

But unhappily her penitence was as little operative as it was sincerely felt. She was very happy at the Home, she said, but there came a serious letter from the Home authorities, to say that they were really anxious about her; that she did not seem to improve; that she was disobedient and undisciplined, and very insolent in a half-joking way when she was spoken to; and though she was ready to express sorrow and seemed to feel it, she was no better when the next occasion came round. They feared if she did not improve that it would be a spoiled and ruined life.

A scene of remonstrance produced floods of tears, portentous sobs, and any number of promises. She cried nearly all night, and made herself unfit for her work next day; which her friends endeavoured to think a hopeful sign.

For a little while she did better. Then there was a piece of misconduct connected with her visit to a hospital; she stayed out too late and was rude when spoken to. In answer to a remonstrance came the following frank letter:

"I am very sorry indeed for grieving you, and I will try to be a better girl. I must say I was rather surprised by your letter for I did not think they would tell you. Jinny went with me to the hospital and I always felt inclined for mischief when she was with me but now she has left I do mean to try to be better. I know we were both rude and having no tea I think made us worse."

But the remainder of her stay at the Home was a chequered tale of scolding, and repentance, and new offence. It became doubtful as to what sort of situation she could take.

However, finally came her announcement:

"I am very Pleased to say I have obtained a situation as general wages £10 a year and there are 7 in family and I shall have to help the charwoman do the washing. I hope very much I shall be able to succeed, I think I shall if the lady does not drive me, I know I should have here if Miss Burton and Miss Pollard [the under matrons] had not ordered me, I know you think life is all honey here but it is far from that. I hope I shall not have such another 3 months as these have been but I don't what to complain and I hope you will excuse me making these remarks. I will try and keep this situation as long as I can for I don't know in what other way I can repay you for all your kindness to me. I do hope you will forgive me all the bother I have caused you. I am very sorry now I have been rude to Miss Burton and Miss Pollard. I know I have never been rude to Mrs. Binney but I hope they will all forgive me."

The situation did not please her mother; she wrote:

"I should Like it better had it been a Little Easier for her i hope and trust to god that she maye keep it. i thing the money very low. i should like you to have give me a Little more of your ideas regardn the Past it would give me more Satisfaction consider it to ourselfs."

But to everyone's surprise Molly, instead of being unsettled by her mother's opinion, took a sensible independent line.

"I saw your letter to mother," she wrote, "and could see she had been complaining to you. If so it is all on her side, as I am quite pleased know it is as good as I deserve and hope to keep it."

This was the more to Molly's credit as the letter she saw was an extremely plain statement as to her own conduct.

Months went by. Molly seemed to be doing well. On her days out she was dressed neatly and well, and very nicely mannered. But no! The old fault of hastiness and instability was back. She wrote after nine months to say that her mistress had given her notice.

"I will tell you truthfully how it happened it was last Friday evening I had been hard at work all day I am never finished on Friday till 12 past ten at night, and last Friday I had a most dreadful headache and Mrs. Wilson had been so cross all day I don't know that I had done anything to offend so when she came in the kitchen and found fault and kept grumbling I answered her back very sharply I felt so tired and cross I really did not know what I was saying and it has been the same ever since, but you will believe me I had tried hard to please her in every way, it has been so hard and they all seem so rude I ought to have told you about a month ago that it was more than I could really manage, but I did not want to grieve you in any way. I thought I could put up with anything to please you by staying the year but I find I cannot I do hope you will not worry though I know how very grieved you will be to hear all this after you talking and me promising to do better at the lodge that afternoon."

Enquiry showed that the mistress had been not pleased with Molly for some weeks; the fault lay almost altogether with Molly. She left; got another place, did badly and left that, and now is in business living with another girl, with no control over her. Still affectionate and full of promises, but unstable, easily led away, not improving, but deteriorating in character.

A more complete contrast to little Louey could hardly be conceived. She is a girl to cause constant anxiety. It is difficult to have any belief in the visible effect so easily produced on her. Yet there are no doubt good desires and ideals in the girl; and affection and gratitude at least of the emotional kind are there. But at present at least she is in the ranks of the unstable, the shifty, and the independable. It remains to hope that fate or circumstance may awake the impulse within and add value and stability to a character in its way very lovable.

Project Canterbury